THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REVIEW
Some years back, I enrolled in a graduate seminar in Analytic Philosophy. At the start of the first class, the professor posed the question—what makes you you? What is the core of your identity? If one were to teleport you through time and space, what part of you would need to be transferred so that it would actually be you that stands at the other end of the Star Trek-like shipment? Would it have to be your DNA sequence—some sort of recipe of proteins? Would it be your feelings? Your face? Your soul or your mind? Your conscience? Your sense of humor? Would it have to be your memory? What makes you distinct from anyone else in the world? After some initial offerings the class spun wildly toward some distorted idea of Nietzsche and human flourishing. Basically, anything that fell short of the mental flourishing seemingly evident in a university graduate student was not really a person. The discussion became heated quickly. I was indignant. I loudly, though clumsily, asserted that infants, the unborn, people in comas, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and those suffering dementia were all individuals—dignified in every respect as the healthiest, most fully developed of human beings. Many students disagreed with and parodied my sentimental screed. I dropped the class, took a course on Hemingway, and was quite happy.
Matthew Thomas’s new novel, We Are Not Ourselves, seems to be a meditation on the question—what makes us who we are? Perhaps there is an even deeper question—do we have any right to consider ourselves apart from others? That is, can we think of ourselves as isolated from those we love and from those around us?
I do not want to scare participants in the Catholic Book Club away from this book by my philosophical musings, but I do want to hint at the novel’s depth. The story is quite beautiful. Essentially, it is the story of Eileen Tumulty, the daughter of Irish immigrants. The reader meets her as a child and watches her develop into a nurse, wife, mother, and professional. The novel is her portrait – a portrait of her love, her suffering, her imperfection, her striving, her aging, and her goodness. It is a portrait of her family—her husband, Ed, and her son, Connell. Eileen pulls the two men in her life toward her dream of suburban peace and upper middle class comfort. She desires reliable respite from the tumult and toil of the majority of her life. Toward the beginning of the book, there is a wonderful scene when Eileen is driving her mother to an AA meeting. She must also ferry her mother’s friends, fellow alcoholics, to the meeting. As she drives through wealthier neighborhoods, the young Eileen thinks to herself:
Life is what you made of it. Some of the houses she’d dropped these people off at would have been enough for her, so why couldn’t it be enough for them? If she lived in one of these houses, she wouldn’t need to get into another woman’s car and head to a damp lower church for a meeting. She could look at her fireplace, her leather sofa, her book lined drawing room; she could listen to silence above her head; she could peer in on empty bedrooms lying in wait for fresh-faced visitors, pleasantly useless otherwise. It would all be enough for her to put a drink down for. And yet these people were. The fact that they were there, that everything they owned wasn’t enough somehow, disturbed her, suggesting a bottomlessness to certain kinds of unhappiness. She shook the thought from her head like dust from an Oriental rug and decided that a house would have to be enough (45-46).
Eileen is mystified that someone could seek dissipation in drink when he or she possesses such a comfortable place to call home. For years and years, she strives for such comfort, yearns for it fiercely. As Eileen’s story unfolds, there are instances of incredible grief and vivid portraits of how human beings are capable of hurting those they love most. There is also humor and the type of perseverance that sweeps up the reader into solidarity with the novel’s characters.
Matthew Thomas’s prose draws the reader into Eileen’s heart and mind. The writing is efficient and thoughtful and kind. It is void of cynicism, vulgarity and irony. The novel offers a portrait, and, through this portrait, it provokes us to consider what exactly it means to be human. How much of who we are is determined by our parents, our siblings, our spouse, our children, even our neighbors? How much of who I am resides in whom I love and who loves me? Finally, how much do I remain myself if I lose everything, including my memory?
I think I have offered enough questions for readers in this introduction to the first half of Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. Please contribute some thoughts on the book or on any of the questions above. I will offer the second part of the introduction at the beginning of October. In the meantime, I urge members of the Book Club to pick up a copy and begin reading.
Susan Beason | 9/28/2014 - 3:53pm
I do not have the book yet. Your review indicates Eileen could be any number of women in the world.
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